Why Withdrawal of Financial Support to Minorities is Discriminatory
Representational use only.
On December 8, the Union Minority Affairs Minister Smriti Irani told Parliament that the government was discontinuing the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad National Fellowship (MANF) for minorities from the academic year 2022-23. MANF, the minister said, overlaps with other available scholarships. The minister also announced earlier in November that pre-matric scholarships will no longer apply to students from class I to VIII, as they are assured free education till class VIII under the Right to Education Act.
The previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had instituted both these scholarships to support religious minorities (particularly Muslims) following the recommendations of the Justice Sachar Committee report. The withdrawal of scholarships is, therefore, discriminatory.
Why Scholarships Matter
In 2006, the UPA government constituted a seven-member committee chaired by Justice Rajindar Sachar to report on the social, economic, and educational status of the Muslim community of India. Though Muslim representation is lower than their proportion in India’s population in almost all respects, they lag particularly behind in education.
The Sachar Committee reported, in 2006, that the literacy rate among Muslims was 59.1% against the national average of 64.8 %. Further, less than 4% of Muslims were graduates or diploma holders compared to about 7% of the population aged 20 years and above. The UPA government instituted several new scholarships after realising the dire need to support religious minorities, particularly Muslims, to attain socioeconomic mobility.
The MANF, instituted in 2009, enabled thousands of minority students to pursue PhDs at premier educational institutions. There were 756 MANF scholarships annually from 2009-10 to 2017-18. This was increased to 1,000 in 2018-19. Over 9,650 students have availed of MANF from 2009-10 to 2020-21. Among the 7,800 total beneficiaries till 2018-19, Muslims comprised 5,507, Christians 1,051, Sikhs 772, Buddhists 358, Parsis 64, Jains 46 and two transgender people (religion-wise data is available only till 2018-19).
While the proportion of Muslim women is the lowest in higher education and research, MANF has enormously impacted Muslim women pursuing research. As a policy, 30% of MANF was reserved for women students. Between 2015-16 and 2018-19, more than 50% (1,720 out of 3,268) of beneficiaries were women (gender-wise data is only available from 2015-16 to 2018-19).
Making Education Accessible
The UPA government started new schemes such as pre-matric (2008), post-matric (2007), and merit-cum-means (2007) scholarships to encourage Muslim students to continue their education. It later extended these schemes to other religious minorities—Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and Zoroastrians (Parsis). The objective of the pre-matric scholarship, as explained by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, was to encourage parents from minority communities to send their children to school, lighten the financial burden on school education and sustain their efforts to support their children to complete their schooling. It said, “The scheme will form the foundation for their educational attainment and provide a level playing field in the competitive employment arena.”
The Union government has not considered that Muslims continue to have an abysmally low gross attendance ratio at all educational levels. According to the National Sample Survey’s 75th round, conducted in 2017-18, Muslims had the highest proportion of youth (male 17% and female 22%) who had never enrolled in formal educational programs. If anything, there is today a case to expand financial support for the education of Muslim youth.
The claim of minister Smriti Irani that MANF overlaps with other fellowships is logically inconsistent. No student can avail of more than one fellowship simultaneously, as all these fellowships are disbursed through a centralised system by the University Grants Commission.
Discontinuing MANF will reduce the share of scholarships available to minority students. Welfare schemes such as pre-matric scholarships are primarily provided to incentivise parents to send their children to schools. Financial aid should not be conflated with the Right to Education Act.
The Narendra Modi-led Union government has been on a concerted campaign to discriminate against minorities, particularly Muslims. The withdrawal of MANF and the pre-matric scholarships, when viewed along with the Citizenship Amendment Act, the lynching of Muslims with impunity, calls for ban on hijabs, and the unilateral actions to integrate Jammu & Kashmir, smacks of a Hindutva mindset and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) ideology.
Arun Kumar. G is assistant professor of political science at GITAM University, Bengaluru, and Kishorekumar Suryaprakash is an economics doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA. The views are personal.
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